Browsing the Leftist Mindset
Is there such a thing as a good left, a “decent left,” to quote Ernest Sternberg from his controversial Orbis article, “Purifying the World: What the New Radical Ideology Stands For”? Sternberg doesn’t think so. For him, the left’s “grand historical vision” of human renovation, in which “diverse communities can harmoniously share an earth that has been saved from destruction,” is nothing less than a toxic nightmare. Nonetheless, leftists continue to invest in the noble yet disastrous fiction of “world purification,” doing their utmost to pursue the corpse candle of “a global network of beneficent culture” and “a new era of global social justice and sustainable development.” Is such a vision merely a predatory chimera or does it represent a feasible project?
The issue is earnestly debated by many leading intellectuals. For example, in Left in Dark Times, Bernard-Henri Lévy seems to believe there is -- or was -- a good left and that “there are still reasons to remain on the left,” namely, its opposition to violence, oppression, and prejudice, predicated on what he calls images, visions, and reflexes (anti-authoritarianism, anti-colonialism, etc.). Yet Lévy reveals a palpable uneasiness with the left, or what it has allowed itself to become, that is, a revolutionary utopianism “that brings out the worst and that transforms men into beasts.” The adherence he rather bizarrely professes appears to shuttle between two uncomfortable psychological states, ambivalence and nostalgia.
We see the same ambiguity on display in Christopher Hitchens’ memoir Hitch-22. Speaking of losing his old left-loyalties, he confesses that “on some days this is like the phantom pain of a missing limb. On others, it’s more like the sensation of having taken off a needlessly heavy overcoat.” He continues:
I suspect that the hardest thing for the idealist is to surrender the teleological, or the sense that there is some feasible, lovelier future that can be brought nearer by exertions in the present, and for which "sacrifices" are justified. With some part of myself, I still "feel," but no longer really think, that humanity would be poorer without this fantastically potent illusion.
I am reminded of Aesop’s fable of the duck trying to stay out of the impending war between the birds and the beasts. When recruited by the birds, the duck claims he is a land animal waddling about the barnyard; when solicited by the beasts, he flaps his wings to demonstrate his counter-nature. But fittingly enough, when peace is declared, he is not invited to the celebration.
Similarly, in Power and the Idealists, Paul Berman has yet to decide whether he is bird or beast. Although critical of the modern left’s perversions, he still holds to the left-oriented “vision of a borderless, federal, peaceful, technocratic Europe,” a transpolitical scheme which has “turned out to be solid and lasting.” At the same time, he repudiates utterly “the defining quality of all totalitarian movements and systems -- role-playing by totalitarian militants who feel entirely justified in liquidating everyone who fails to have a proper role in the grand tableau of the reigning mythology.” Berman’s condemnation applies, obviously, to the excesses of both the right and the left, to fascism as well as to communism. The scenes enacted on the “grand tableau” today, however, derive mainly from the theoretical platform of the left, whether we are looking at Putin’s Russia, Chavez’s Venezuela, Castro’s Cuba, Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea, or Hu Jintao’s China (among others).
Of course, the theocratic despotisms in Iran, Gaza, Sudan, Somalia, or Hezbollah’s Lebanon do not emerge from a leftist ideology, but the Western left has not scrupled to form an ideological alliance with the centers of radical Islam. As Nick Cohen points out in What’s Left: How Liberals Lost Their Way (re-subtitled How The Left Lost Its Way), this mentality is really a quasi-revolutionary daydream that allows its proponents “to pretend to themselves that they were covertly building up the radical left rather than riding the Islamic tiger.” Although it is moot whether the left has been punk’d by Muslim window-dressing or is, in fact, fully aware of its ideological commitment against the weal of the democratic West, there is little question that it has come to behave like the junior branch of Islam. Jamie Glazov gets it right in his United in Hate: “The common denominator between the left and Islamism: Ground Zero must be engendered everywhere so that the earthly paradise can be built on its ashes.” (Indeed, the plan to build an Islamic center and mosque, called Cordoba House, near Ground Zero is a physical expression of this aspiration.)
Leftists are convinced, writes Sternberg, that the planet can be “remade pristine,” rescued from the depredations of a world system “known as Empire.” The Babelian hubris of the project is evident in the claptrap idiolect of that manifesto and war manual of the new left, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s scarcely intelligible Empire, from which the word and the concept was launched into widespread circulation. “The mythology of the languages of the multitude,” the authors write, “interprets the telos of the earthly city, torn away by the power of its own destiny from any belonging or subjection to a city of God, which has lost all honor and legitimacy.” The revolutionary violence these authors promote has been tried before in the various social gulags of the Communist backwaters, leading to the suffering, disempowerment, and impoverishment of hundreds of millions. But no matter. As the old saying goes, eggs must be broken to make an omelette -- even if, as Isaiah Berlin commented in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, “The eggs are broken, and the habit of breaking them grows, but the omelette remains invisible.”
What the left has simply not understood is that in this world Paradise is not an option. The quest for political transcendence can lead only to eventual banishment from the imagined garden and to the flaming sword which turns every way. History has shown that when the paradigm of the City of God is imposed without humility or nuance upon the earthly city, whatever imperial modification that beau ideal may assume, or when the earthly city replaces in its self-sufficiency the heavenly city, some sort of political deformation invariably ensues.
Still, the contrafactual reverie persists in the face of mountains of damning evidence. Milan Kundera, whose experience of life in Soviet dominated Czechoslovakia provided him with his (somewhat belated) political education, is very clear about this inevitable devolution. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, he articulates the dilemma that has ever afflicted the left. “Hell is already contained in the dream of paradise,” he contends. “Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger … while the adjoining paradise gets ever smaller.”
But the left has never cared much for reality. It is wedded to theory in the name of which a failed experiment, an invisible omelette, must constantly be refried. Leftist convictions are ultimately camouflage for political ritual, indifference to suffering, and rampant egotism. One can hide from oneself -- one’s resentments, failures, and surreptitious motives -- behind so-called “progressive” thinking, a veritable hodgepodge of maxims that need not be mutually consistent: All “truths” are valid. All cultures are equal in value. Overpopulation is a curse on the planet. Global warming is a settled fact that demands the demolition of the West’s economy and the overturning of our way of life. There is no such thing as an ultimate purpose except to establish some future utopian harmony -- Hitchens’ “teleological.” The family is no longer the primary social unit, its prerogatives having been usurped by group identity politics and the hegemony of the collective. Personal identity is “socially constructed.” History has been superseded by narrative. A nation does not compel allegiance or obligation; nevertheless, the state knows best.
Under such a proliferation of fashionable tenets posing as a philosophy of enlightenment, the individual need not commit to the labor of cultural continuity, the responsibilities of procreation and child nurture, or even the demands of personal intellectual development. Thus, by espousing a leftist mindset, the individual is emancipated from the rigors of independent thought, the preservation of the family, and the defense of the nation and its living tradition. In effect, the individual no longer has a past worth saving or a present worth defending, only a hypothetical future worth sacrificing for. Oddly enough, though, most of the sacrificing is done by others.
“The true goal of this new liberalism,” writes Shelby Steele in New Threats to Freedom, with particular reference to the United States, is to “seize political power in the name of redeeming America of its past.” In so doing, he argues, liberalism works against “the timeless principles of freedom,” since “with freedom there can be no guarantee of results.” Consequently, what we now call liberalism -- or left-liberalism, or simply leftism -- is a social, political, and ideological movement that wishes to flex “‘moral’ leverage and muscle”; it is not “a discipline of freedom.”
This is even truer of the European Union. While the EU (both the majority of people and their administrators) obviously does not qualify as part of Negri and Hardt’s “multitude” of the dispossessed, eulogized by the authors as “constellations of powerful singularities” that constitute a “radical counterpower,” and while the EU power structure certainly does not envision the military oppression of its own citizens in order to impose a policy of social and economic egalitarianism, which it seeks to accomplish via legislation, it is no less an ideological figment. The proof of this is pouring in by the day as nation after nation faces the prospect of fiscal collapse. The EU is not, as Berman thought, “solid and lasting.”
Like those French sophisticates who cherished six weeks of summer vacation over the welfare of their parents and grandparents sweltering and dying in stuffy Paris apartments during a heatwave, leftists are all too ready to disavow a long and complex cultural heritage and allow our common progenitors to fade from consciousness. And like the Spanish and Italians and Swedes (and others) with a reproductive replacement ratio that assures eventual extinction, they do not mourn over their unborn children and a dwindling future. The veridical past and the possible future have no resonance for these Kaspar Hausers of the revolutionary moment. For the program of the egalitarian left functions as a salve to conscience for those who have given up on a real, viable future in order to pursue their private pleasures while at the same time catering to their sense of virtuous commitment to a higher cause.
What we call “the left” or “the new liberalism” is only the social reification of delusion and hypocrisy, a peculiar amalgam of orphaned intelligence and prolonged emotional adolescence. Aside from those who exploit the movement for their own personal profit -- the plutocrats and the power-mongers -- it comprises an army of rote myrmidons led by a class of intellectual prodigies who, regrettably, have never grown up.